+++E-Access Bulletin.- Issue 48, December 2003.

Technology news for people with vision impairment (http://www.headstar.com/eab ). Sponsored by RNIB (http://www.rnib.org.uk ). A Merry Christmas to all our readers!

NOTE: Please forward this free bulletin to others (subscription details at the end). We conform to the accessible Text Email Newsletter (TEN) Standard: http://www.headstar.com/ten .

++Section One: News.


+01: Revolutionary Speech Technology To Launch

New synthetic speech technology is set to revolutionise the way blind and partially sighted people access newspaper and magazine content, according to the RNIB.

The institute has joined forces with specialist firm Rhetorical (http://www.rhetorical.com ) to create CD versions of magazines. The Rhetorical technology, called rVoice, uses "voice modelling" to record real voices; analyse pronunciation and intonation; and produce a model of each voice which predicts how individual words would be pronounced. The result can translate text into synthetic speech which is "virtually indistinguishable" from a human voice, says Steve Tyler, policy and ICT access manager at the RNIB.

Until now, text-to-speech technologies have often produced artificial- sounding voices that are confusing and off-putting. As a result, users have preferred recordings of newspapers and magazines read on to tape by actors and volunteers, a time-consuming and expensive process. Using rVoice however, a TV listing which currently takes an RNIB volunteer around 17 hours to record can be reproduced in less than an hour.

The system has considerable potential for specialist applications, Tyler says. "Take accountancy course materials which are very technical. They would cost around 60,000 pounds to produce in audio, mainly because of the specialist knowledge required to 'translate' the content. With Rhetorical, voices can be 'trained' for specific subjects by recording accountancy terminology, substantially reducing production costs."

Later this month, the RNIB is launching pilot CD versions of the TV listings magazines 'Radio Times' and 'TV Times' using rVoice. The magazines will be tested by users of DAISY digital talking book players, and there are plans to test other delivery mechanisms such as telephones and the internet.

+02: Microsoft Legal Actions Set To Continue

Legal wrangling between US lobby groups and Microsoft over the accessibility of its software seem set to continue, despite a plea from the company last month that it has realised the error of its ways, and it was time to "call off the lawyers" so everyone could proceed in partnership.

The call came from Madelyn Bryant McIntire, the Director of Microsoft's Accessibility Group, as she delivered the keynote address to last month's Techshare conference on access to technology, hosted by the RNIB (http://www.techshare.org.uk ).

McIntire admitted that Microsoft's user testing had until now "overlooked" people with sight problems, but that would now change. She said the company now recognised that such people form a significant market segment: for example, a survey by research company Forrester of 15,000 households in the US found that around 28 per cent of all citizens say they have either correctible or non correctible vision problems with reading newsprint (though the survey did not ask about accessing computer screens).

However, McIntire said that legal action had made the discussion too rigid and that it was time to "call off the lawyers". This was understood by most present to refer to consumer organisations in the US which have fought hard in the courts over measures such as section 508, which requires all technology companies supplying the US federal government to ensure their products are accessible to all.

The answer is partnership, not confrontation, McIntire said. She said terms like "disability" and "impairment" were barriers to effective dialogue, and a better term was "social inclusion".

However Janina Sajka, director of director of technology research and development at the American Foundation for the Blind, said later: "I am glad Microsoft has discovered the disability continuum, but I hate to think where blind people would be if we had not used legal means to extract some accessibility out of major companies. We're not about to call off the lawyers."

NOTE: For more Techshare reporting see section four, this issue - 'A new era of realism?'

+03: Visionary Design Winners Announced

The winners of the Visionary Design Awards for high quality accessible web sites (http://visdesign.nlbuk.org ) were announced this week by the National Library for the Blind in the UK (NLB - http://www.nlb-online.org ).

The winners were 'The friendly duck' (http://www.calibre.org.uk/Kids ), new web site for kids from the Calibre cassette library, in the youth and education category; 'Adviceguide' (http://www.adviceguide.org.uk ), from Citizens Advice, for news and information; Rushcliffe Borough Council (http://www.rushcliffe.gov.uk ), for government; Manchester United football club (http://www.manutd.com/access ), for large organisations; comedy show the Bradshaws (http://www.thebradshaws.biz ), for small to medium organisations; and Birmingham Focus on Blindness (http://www.birminghamfocus.org.uk ) for voluntary organisations.

Winners were nominated by vision-impaired people, web designers and site owners. A spokeswoman for the NLB said the organisation aims to use the awards as part of an ongoing campaign to encourage website developers to consider access technology.

NOTE: For a full report on the Visionary Design Awards, including interviews with the winners, see 'Designs for life,' section three, this issue.

+04: Tv Channel Five Adds Audio Description

The TV station Five (http://www.five.tv - formerly Channel Five) has become the first UK public service broadcaster to offer an audio description service using digital satellite broadcasting, increasing the number of people able to receive description from 4.5 to 7.1 million in one fell swoop.

Audio description adds a verbal description of what is taking place on screen between pieces of dialogue. Previously Five had offered this service on Freeview (http://www.freeview.co.uk ), the digital terrestrial service delivered through a set-top box.

However, manufacturers have been slow to develop Freeview boxes that can receive audio description, which is currently only accessible to 45 trial viewers. By adding audio description to its service delivered over BSkyB satellite (http://www.sky.com ), Five is now reaching millions of homes with the service. BSkyB itself - though not a free- to-air channel with a regulated public service element like the main five UK terrestrial channels - already delivers some 3,000 hours a year of audio described programming on its pay channels such as Sky One and Sky News.

Some Freeview equipment is now being developed to receive audio description. RNIB digital broadcasting development officer Clive Miller says two products are in the pipeline: Nebula DigiTV (http://www.nebula.electronics.com ), a digital TV receiver for use with PCs, and i-Player, a Freeview receiver from Netgem (http://www.netgem.com ).

Delivery technology is not the only barrier to the development of audio description, however - the descriptions need to be written and recorded in the first place. The target for audio - described content was recently raised from six to ten per cent by the time a broadcaster is in its tenth year of service under the Communications Act 2003, with a draft code on compliance to be put out for consultation by the new industry regulator Ofcom (http://www.ofcom.org.uk ) later this month.

However, the RNIB has criticised the ten per cent quota and is campaigning for it to be raised to 50 per cent. The organisation is also lobbying the BBC, ITV and Channel Four to follow the example of Five and to use the existing BSkyB system to deliver their audio- described content.

NOTE: Readers wishing to support the RNIB's campaign for more audio description can email campaign@rnib.org.uk for draft letters to send to broadcasters and politicians.

++News In Brief.



A new phone-based internet service, PhoneAnything, will allow vision-impaired people in the UK to browse the web, fill in online forms and access internet radio using any telephone. Calls to the service, activated by voice or keyboard commands, are made by dialling 0845 333 0845, charged at local rates: http://www.phoneanything.com/vpweb.htm .


Liz Lynne, the European Parliament member appointed as official 'rapporteur' for the European Year of People with Disabilities 2003, has said that the year did not meet its potential and was "depressingly weak on positive outcomes." She says the year has raised awareness of disability issues, but now must be backed up by speedier implementation of the EU Disability Directive and the employment directive to ban discrimination on the grounds of disability in the workplace: http://www.lizlynne.org.uk/story.php?id=182 .


The computer access software specialist Dolphin has announced that the latest versions of its Supernova, Hal, Lunar and LunarPlus products will work on 'thin client' computers - low- functionality terminals which generally cannot run special access software: http://www.dolphinuk.co.uk/news/t_services.htm .

[Section one ends].

++Special Notice: Web Accessibility Forum.


Accessify Forum is a discussion forum devoted to all topics relating to web accessibility. Topics cover everything from 'Beginners' and 'Site building and testing' through to projects such as the new accessibility testing tool WaiZilla and the accessibility of the open source forum software itself.

All you need to register is a working email address, so come along and join in the fun at: http://www.accessifyforum.com .

[Special notice ends].

++Section Two: 'The Inbox'- Readers' Forum.


- Please email all contributions or responses to inbox@headstar.com .

++Section Two: 'The Inbox'- Readers' Forum.


- Please email all contributions or responses to inbox@headstar.com .

+08: FLAT OUT:

Robby Barnes of the Kaizen Program for New English Learners with Visual Limitations in Seattle, Washington writes to add to our recent correspondence on the use of screen magnifiers with flat-screen monitors (see also Inbox, last issue).

"The problems I have experienced with a flat-screen monitor with ZoomText screen magnification at 5x or 6x involved 'ghosting' (breaking up of the screen image) when I moved the mouse or scrolled the page up or down. This made it very tiring to read with magnification for any length of time. Regular monitors don't have this problem because they have a much faster refresh rate.

"Is it possible that the TFT iiyama AS 4611 UT 18-inch screen has a faster than usual refresh rate which makes it compatible with screen magnification?" NOTE: in our last issue, Chris McMillan said that she had encountered no problems using ZoomText with this iiyama screen. [Further responses please to inbox@headstar.com].


Scott Rae of the Highland Society for Blind People has a quick question about accessible music tools. "I work with visually impaired teens, and we are exploring their barriers to social inclusion and they are starting to challenge them. Have any readers come across technology that would help visually impaired youth read sheet music?" Suggestions please to inbox@headstar.com .


The blind barrister Fayyaz Afzal, profiled in our November issue, said his biggest technology bugbear was not being able to read text messages on his mobile phone. Lynn Holdsworth, Web Developer at the RNIB, writes in to say: "Perhaps this would be of interest to Fayyaz. I'm currently using a Nokia 3650 with an excellent beta version of the Talx [speech output] software that runs on Symbian phones.

"The software should be commercially released in the next month or so. With it I'm able to check my battery and signal strength, read text messages, use contact lists and the appointment scheduler. I don't yet have access to WAP, but that's about the only thing that's lacking."


In our last issue, we ran a news piece saying that the US analyst Donna Fluss of DMG Consulting was predicting that the worldwide market for speech technology products is set to leap forward over the next 18 to 24 months.

After reading the piece, Jo Fullerton, Lead Technology Officer (pre- 16) at the RNIB Education Centre Scotland, wrote in with a point of clarification: "Do you think all your readers will realise that Donna Fluss is talking about speech control of computers (voice recognition and voice input) rather than screen readers? It took me a while reading her original article to be clear that she is talking about speech mainly as an input device rather than as output.

"Nevertheless, there are links between the technologies, so hopefully this business thrust will benefit blind users of computers too. I suppose if speech input did become as accurate as keyboarding and some of the other difficulties were reduced, those blind people who have not learned touch typing should benefit."

[Section two ends].

++ Section Three: Special Report- Web Awards.


+12: DESIGNS FOR LIFE by Mel Poluck mel@headstar.com .

"It's a funny thing building an accessible web site: people don't always realise the work that goes into it", says Emma Charles, one of six web site producers honoured at this month's 'Visionary Design' awards (http://www.visionary-design.org ).

The awards, hosted by the National Library for the Blind (NLB - http://www.nlb-online.org ), were judged by a panel including ten people with vision impairment. Emma Charles' company TWI Interactive (http://www.twii.net ) produced the web site for the Manchester United football team (http://www.manutd.com ) which scooped the 'large organisation' prize.

Manchester United plc has a formal policy to meet the needs of its disabled supporters (http://fastlink.headstar.com/mufc1 ), working with the Manchester United Disabled Supporters Association (MUDSA - http://www.mudsa.com ). The policy includes a commitment to web accessibility, and members of MUDSA, one of whom is vision- impaired, helped to test the team's web site before it went live.

Although the team's main web site is not fully accessible, there is a separate accessible site carrying most of the information to be found on the main site. "You can change the text size up to a high level while maintaining the page layout (see http://www.manutd.com/access ), so people with vision difficulties don't necessarily have to use screen magnification, which can create a bit of disorientation," Charles says.

Also popular with the judges was the way users of the site can choose colour combinations: "You can choose to 'skin' your web site in one of the colours of the Manchester United kits," says Charles. Luckily, the team's kit colours coincide well with those colour combinations that many people with impaired vision find easier to use.

The winner of the award in the government category was Rushcliffe Borough Council (http://www.rushcliffe.gov.uk ) in Nottinghamshire. The council's one-man-band web developer Laura van Weyenbergh claims accessible features of the site "are nothing revolutionary." She says: "I started it because I felt passionate about it, but anyone at the award ceremony would have felt inspired - it made me more fired up".

Referring to the international Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines (http://www.w3.org/WAI/ ), whose highest standard is known as 'AAA', she says "I was quite surprised we won because we were not AAA compliant". The site does however include a facility to make the text display larger; 'access keys' to assist browsing using a keyboard rather than a mouse; and advice on how to make Adobe pdf files more accessible.

Other winners included Birmingham Focus on Blindness, which also received a British Interactive Media Association award last week (http://www.bima.co.uk/content_awards/2003-shortlist.html ); and The Bradshaws Online (http://www.thebradshaws.biz ), the web site of a radio comedy show about a working class Mancunian in the 1960s. It started life as a cult late-night show on Manchester's Piccadilly Radio and is now syndicated to stations worldwide.

Darren Poyzer, designer of The Bradshaws Online, describes himself as "one guy who works out of a bedroom," who initially designed the site as a favour for a friend. He says: "We were under no brief to create an accessible version of the web site, there was no political motivation. It was just a natural thing to do - because it's radio, we probably have a bigger vision-impaired following."

Poyzer says he incorporated the accessible version of the web site within the theme of the site, in a black and white "traditional" version. "I undid all the science and used a bit of common sense. You've got to look at things from the user's point of view, not always a technical point of view".

Why does he think he won the award? "[At the ceremony], the first message was that it is so easy to navigate, and it's enjoyable", Poyzer says. "I'm certainly no expert: a visually impaired person has tapped into a web site I've done and it's worked."

Poyzer said he was "overwhelmed by the enthusiasm" of one vision- impaired woman he met at the ceremony who had nominated the site. "That was the award," he said.

[Section three ends].

++Section Four: Opinion- Techshare 2003.



by Kevin Carey humanity@atlas.co.uk

The fourth Techshare conference on the role of technology in the everyday lives of people with sight problems marked a watershed in the way that ICT for visually impaired people is viewed both by their own advocates and by industry. The conference was hosted by the RNIB in Birmingham last month (http://www.rnib.org.uk/techshare - see also story 02, News, this issue).

On the advocacy side, the fact that most people with sight problems are more concerned about being able to use consumer electronics and telephones than home computers seems to have finally hit home. And on the industry side, in a volte face of spectacular proportions, the major players Microsoft and Vodafone admitted that the world was not divided between a handful of severely disabled and troublesome people on the one hand and an overwhelming majority of able and satisfied people on the other. They finally discovered the disability continuum: from total blindness to reading problems with standard format on- screen text.

What bliss! We are no longer part of the awkward squad, but an important market segment; and the industry objective is not to bury us but to praise us!

The fact that the technology industry's Damascene conversion has arrived so late is a direct reflection of the vision impairment sector's past tendency to focus on proper but minority concerns about accessing technology in education and employment. But as access to television, radio, mobile phones and the like are more mainstream concerns shared by almost all people with impaired vision, it is right that there has now been a shift of emphasis towards these household devices.

It is also appropriate that the two people who are most responsible for this change of attitude can share the credit for Techshare's success. The RNIB's Richard Orme and Steve Tyler have, in their various ways, broadened the horizon of the whole sector to think about DVDs and phones as well as word processing and computer programming. So often accused of being backward looking, this is an area where RNIB is miles ahead of most of the rest of the vision impairment sector.

This has been achieved not least because the institute has increasingly moved towards evidence based policy-making, exemplified by the early results of the 'uses of technology' research carried out by City University: watch this space.

The other great pleasure of Techshare this year was the reduced amount of 'technophilia' and a much increased recognition of human factors. Even when access technology works - and the failure rate is depressingly but predictably high from a hitherto fragmented market of small niche suppliers - the key to interactive success is self confidence and a feeling of being in control. On these points the debate is much better balanced.

A third welcome change of tone worth noting at this year's event was an apparent new willingness among lobby groups to come to terms with the technological and regulatory complexities of the access agenda. Most delegates were certainly less stridently dogmatic this year; the subordinate clause has, so to speak, come home.

All this may well be a false dawn. As technologies advance, the comparative disadvantage between people with sight problems and the rest of the world widens in spite of solid progress; and if the commercial sector's objective is to use soft language to try ward off trouble, it would not be the first time.

Overall, however, it would be wrong to end on a negative note. Techshare was a fine and varied collage of snapshots of where we are now. Its challenge will be to work out a way to fascinate us now that neither acrimony nor a search for paradise remain on the agenda.

[Section four ends].

++End Notes.


+How To Receive This Bulletin

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Please send comments on coverage or leads to Dan Jellinek at: dan@headstar.com .

Copyright 2003 Headstar Ltd http://www.headstar.com . The Bulletin may be reproduced as long as all parts including this copyright notice are included, and as long as people are always encouraged to subscribe with us individually by email. Please also inform the editor when you are reproducing our content. Sections of the report may be quoted as long as they are clearly sourced as 'taken from e-access bulletin, a free monthly email newsletter', and our web site address http://www.headstar.com/eab is also cited.


  • Editor - Dan Jellinek dan@headstar.com
  • Deputy editor - Derek Parkinson derek@headstar.com
  • Reporter - Mel Poluck mel@headstar.com
  • Correspondent - Phil Cain phil@vitalpublishing.com
  • Editorial advisor - Kevin Carey humanity@atlas.co.uk .

ISSN 1476-6337 .

[Issue ends].